We began this series yesterday with a look at the five most underachieving Tennessee teams of the last 25 years. As pointed out in the comments, it's really the most underachieving teams of the last 15 years, which means there were a lot of teams playing at or above their potential during Tennessee's greatest run in the 90s. We'll look tomorrow at the five most overachieving Tennessee teams during the same 1989-present span, but today here's a look at the teams in the middle and how talent manifested itself into wins. Each of these 15 teams performed close to its talent level and initial expectations:
2001 (11-2 SEC East Champions) - Preseason Rank 8, Final Rank 4 - 16 Starters Drafted
These three are go-to in the most talented Tennessee team conversation, along with the somewhat underachieving 1999 squad we looked at yesterday. Here you have two Peyton Manning squads, one with the Kent/Nash/Graham combo of reliability and the latter with the Nash/Peerless/Jamal combo of ridiculous talent. The 2001 team featured Travis Stephens and the school record for single season rushing yards, as well as the Stallworth/Washington/Witten receiving combo that would go against any in school history. While you certainly have a difference in quarterback talent between Peyton Manning and Casey Clausen, it's defense that really stands out for all three of these teams. The '95 Vols put seven defensive starters in the draft including three linemen and three defensive backs. The '97 defense started Leonard Little, Al Wilson, and Raynoch Thompson at linebacker with Dwayne Goodrich and Terry Fair at corner. And the 2001 defense is still a contender for the best defensive line in school history and beyond, with John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth playing right next to each other. With these three teams you knew the Vols were loaded, expected a great season, and got it.
2007 (10-4 SEC East Champions) - Preseason Rank 15, Final Rank 12 - 6 Starters Drafted
Two very different pictures in terms of overall talent, and two very different narratives with similar swings from peak to valley. The '90 Vols played what was until last year the most difficult schedule in school history, facing the two teams who would play for the National Championship in the non-conference (Colorado and Notre Dame) along with three other Top 15 SEC teams and the team ranked #1 in mid-October in the Sugar Bowl (Virginia). The Vols tied Colorado and #3 Auburn, lost to #1 Notre Dame in a heartbreaker, destroyed #9 Florida 45-3 but lost one of the toughest games in UT history 9-6 to Alabama. Tennessee rebounded to beat #15 Ole Miss in Memphis, wrap up the conference title, and take down Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. Six of these games came down to the final possession.
Meanwhile 2007 was filled with unusual blowouts everywhere, in both negative and positive fashion. The Vols were decimated by Florida and Alabama along with a season-opening loss at California. But Tennessee hammered Georgia and Arkansas, survived both South Carolina and Kentucky in overtime, just missed against the eventual National Champions in Atlanta, then beat Wisconsin to get to ten wins. Both of these teams got where they eventually needed to go, they just took a much more entertaining route.
These four years were strikingly similar, most notably in the way the preseason read was pretty accurate, and the way all four get a little lost in history because the Vols lost the bowl game. Interestingly enough, Penn State was the culprit three times. It never really seems like it at the time, but the final impression of a team often makes too large an impact when it's negative. Going to the bowl game the '91 Vols were ranked 10th, the '93 Vols ranked 6th, and the '03 Vols ranked 6th. If the outcome of those games are different, you're talking about another Top 10 and two more Top 5 teams. Instead, these teams get remembered one page back in UT football lore. Each of them carried strong individual memories - The Miracle at South Bend in '91, Heath Shuler's Heisman campaign in '93, road wins at Florida, Alabama, and Miami in 2003, wins over Cal and Georgia in 2006 - but because of the aftertaste no one really says, "Man, remember that 2003 team? They were really good."
2000 (8-4) - Preseason Rank 12, Final Rank NR - 11 Starters Drafted
2009 (7-6) - Preseason Rank NR, Final Rank NR - 6 Starters Drafted
2013 (5-7) - Preseason Rank NR, Final Rank NR - ? Starters Drafted
A look at what the Tennessee name used to be worth: in clear rebuilding efforts in both 1994 and 2000, the preseason polls still gave the Vols all kinds of love because of the T on the helmet. That had clearly left the building in the year one efforts of Lane Kiffin and Butch Jones, but even in those years Tennessee fans were braced for struggle and got it, with a few glimmers of hope along the way. The '94 Vols got hot as soon as Peyton Manning took over the starting job full-time, same for the '00 Vols and Casey Clausen. Kiffin's team has felt at times like an underachiever to me because it lost games to the likes of UCLA and Auburn in Knoxville and took an absolute beating in Oxford, but also thrashed Georgia and South Carolina and was one play away from beating the eventual National Champions. And Team 117 took the beatings we thought they would take, including some surprise ones from surprise challengers Missouri and Auburn, but also surprised us all with their performances against Georgia and the win over South Carolina. With this bunch you knew results were coming later, and thus were okay when they struggled in the present.
2011 (5-7) - Preseason Rank NR, Final Rank NR - 5+ Starters Drafted
The '96 Vols aren't quite underachievers because they only lost two games, but I can't put the team that lost to Memphis in the Elite Talent, Elite Results tier. Those Vols also faced an unfortunate situation with strength of schedule; other than the dramatic 20-13 win in Neyland Stadium over Alabama, Tennessee really didn't win any games of long-term resonance in 1996. They were really talented, they lost to the eventual National Champions from Florida and to Memphis for the first time ever, and they beat everyone else which wasn't much of anyone else besides Bama.
Dooley's second team remains so defined by injuries to Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter before the Kentucky loss, then the Kentucky loss kind of colored the whole season. I don't think it's fair to say it underachieved because it was playing with a less than full deck to begin with, then lost two of its face cards. It certainly did not overachieve with a long stretch of non-competitive football and the most embarrassing loss we've seen around here in a while. In the long run it will eventually be absorbed into Dooley himself and may not be remembered at all.
We finish our look back tomorrow with a closer look at the five most overachieving teams of the last 25 years.
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